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Washington County Education Association v. Washington County Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

June 20, 2019

WASHINGTON COUNTY EDUCATION ASSOCIATION ET AL.
v.
WASHINGTON COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION ET AL.

          Session April 15, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Washington County No. 17-CV-0428 John C. Rambo, Chancellor

         Kimber Halliburton, the director of the Washington County Board of Education, notified Stacia Howard, a non-tenured teacher, that her employment contract would not be renewed. The Washington County board did not review the director's decision because the board's attorney believed that the board lacked the legal authority to do so. Ms. Howard and the Washington County Education Association (WCEA) filed a complaint against the board and the director. Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment regarding the authority of the board to review and modify the director's personnel decisions, including the director's decision to non-renew Ms. Howard's contract. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs lacked standing. The trial court granted the defendants' motion. Plaintiffs appeal. We affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed; Case Remanded

          Richard L. Colbert and C. Joseph Hubbard, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Washington County Education Association and Stacia Howard.

          Samuel K. McPeak, Johnson City, Tennessee, for the appellee, Washington County Board of Education.

          Jeffrey M. Ward, Greeneville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Kimber Halliburton.

          Charles D. Susano, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., JUDGE

         I.

         In reviewing the trial court's dismissal of this case pursuant to the provisions of Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(6), this Court is required to take the allegations in plaintiffs' complaint as true. Nelson v. Myres, 545 S.W.3d 428, 430 (Tenn. 2018) (quoting Crews v. Buckman Labs. Int'l, Inc., 78 S.W.3d 852, 857 (Tenn. 2002)).

         Ms. Howard worked as a music teacher at Gray Elementary School for five consecutive school years. Each year, she received positive evaluations. Despite these positive evaluations, the director notified Ms. Howard that her employment contract would not be renewed for the 2017-18 school year. The board did not provide written notice to Ms. Howard of the specific reasons for her non-renewal, as permitted (but not required) by Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-2-203(b)(8) (2016). As a result, Ms. Howard never had the opportunity to request a hearing pursuant to that statutory provision. See id. ("[A]ny teacher so notified shall be given, upon request, a hearing to determine the validity of the reasons given for failure of reelection [.]"). Ms. Howard would have been eligible for tenure if her contract had been renewed.

         On June 1, 2017, the board met in regular session. Ms. Howard and various other individuals attended the public meeting for the purpose of expressing concern about some of the director's personnel decisions. Before receiving public comments, members of the board met privately for approximately thirty minutes. When the public meeting began, the board's attorney, Tom Seeley, instructed the board that the personnel decisions made by the director were final. Plaintiffs allege that Mr. Seeley's advice led the board to believe that it "had no power or authority to review, overrule, or otherwise modify or change the personnel decisions of Director Halliburton." Plaintiffs also allege that if Mr. Seeley had not advised the board as he did, "the Board of Education would have reviewed and reconsidered the decision by Director Halliburton to non-renew the Plaintiff Howard's employment."

         Plaintiffs filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment regarding the authority of the board to review and modify the director's personnel decisions, including the director's decision to non-renew Ms. Howard's contract. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that plaintiffs lacked standing. The trial court granted defendants' motion. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

         II.

         Plaintiffs raise the following two issues:

Does a teacher who is the subject of a personnel decision made by a director of schools pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. ยง 49-2-301(b)(1)(EE) have standing to seek a declaratory judgment regarding the board of ...

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